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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Review Week Day 4: Tomb Raider Anniversary

The original Tomb Raider was one of the first computer games I spent any time with, and, like many impressionable early teens, it had an enchanting effect on me. For me, returning to the lost valley was like returning to my childhood (now if only someone will remake X-Com).

With the recent increase in the number of high production games there is a higher concentration of great games, so it's good sometimes to have a game come along that reminds us how things can go wrong. Tomb Raider: Anniversary is not a bad game, it's just mediocre. There are a lot of things it does well, a few things it does passably and a couple of things that it does poorly enough to detract from the rest of it.

The puzzling is excellent, with some true stumpers. They are all solvable, especially when the camera is working on your side and helps to hint at the next steps. Often, the continuous movement through a level gives a great feeling of acrobatic momentum. Towards the end, however, the puzzle difficulty comes less as a question of how to move around the environment and becomes the technical challenge of actually executing the necessary motions in the time allotted. In these moments the inconsistent camera becomes a serious issue. The angle of the camera at times works against the way you're moving the thumbpad (I played this with a 360 controller on the PC), sending you jumping off into space.

The Boss fights and cinematics show the same inconsistency. Most are entertaining, though only a few are actually difficult. The real challenge comes from finding the trick to beat them, different for each one. Each boss fight is preceded by or culminates in a quicktime event (some both) which are passably done and at times take away from the tedium of the inane cutscenes (story has never been a strong suit of the series). However, in some moments they drastically lessen the intended impact of the scene they are in, most obviously when Lara shoots Larson. Her over-dramatic display of guilt is a farce, since the game demands that you do it in order to proceed. This disconnect between impact and mechanic became especially apparent with the appearance of the T-Rex. What remains, in the original, one of the most cinematic, iconic and epic moments in gaming is here reduced to a trite and gimmicky quicktime event and boss battle. Before it was actually terrifying, as the music slowly built to the moment when the T-rex burst from around the corner, forcing you to run panicking away, firing wildly. In this game it's remarkably easy to off a T-Rex with a few spiky logs and timely button presses.

While many of the advancements in Lara's control and freedom of motion make the puzzles and levels more complex and interesting, changes like the quicktime events cheapen the effect. The one thing that the developers got very right though, is limiting the changes to those few things. There are no new weapons, no new levels, no drastic changes to the story (as incoherent as it is). The setpieces from the original remain largely intact despite the new ways you'll moves around them. If you have fond memories of the original Tomb Raider, this is an engaging walk down memory lane, even if it does fall short of the nostalgia. If you're looking for an acrobatic puzzling game and need to fill some time before the next Prince of Persia, the 8 hours it takes to play this to completion are worth it. Despite its niggling control issues and the occasionally questionable design decisions, this is a solidly executed platformer with a great sense of momentum and scale.

EDIT: This is the final entry for the review week, school and work have taken over and I don't have time to finish Bioshock to review it. As soon as I do have some time and some more games to talk about (Spore, Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 especially) I hope to have another review week.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Review Week Day 3: Crysis

Crysis embodies a fairly new class of games that we are seeing more and more often as the number of gamers and the available money increases. It is the gaming equivalent of a summer blockbuster: high production values, great special effects, high action and high adrenaline experiences complete with mind-numbing plot and questionable acting (though it's actually quite good in comparison with most other games). We've always had big budget games, but the budget and production for a game like Quake 2 that reached tens of thousands of people is pittance in comparison with the big money titles that we are seeing these days with six and seven digit sales numbers.

With that much money circling around, we've seen, in the last few years, a phenomenal increase in the number of truly excellent games that have been released. Crysis is no exception. But high production values and spectacles can only help or hurt a game so much. A game lives and dies by the quality of its gameplay (there is another interesting discussion to be had about the imbalance of elements inherent to games, but again, not in this post); and in Crysis the gameplay is solid.

The addition of the nanosuit turns this from an above average shooter into the high quality game it is. It acts as an enabler and exaggerating influence to every different playstyle, freeing the player to act how they want. Regardless of whether you like to stealth and snipe, to stealth and ambush, to run and gun or just to overpower your enemies, the suit functions will make each path more interesting, more effective and especially more fun. As the first type (like many gamers) I thoroughly enjoyed leading teams of North Koreans through the woods in panic. The game heightens every playstyle so that one truly feels like a supersoldier, like a one man army, but it doesn't make it easy. You will still be outgunned and outmanned, working from an inferior strategic position much of the time. The combat rewards bold moves, cunning tactics and above all careful and accurate shooting. The enemies go down fast when you shoot for the head, but the fights will take forever if you just spray and pray.

But that's just the first half of the game. In the second half, *SPOILER TIME* when inside the mountain and subsequently when the aliens emerge from said mountain, the combat changes tremendously. Here as you move from setpiece to setpiece there is little cause to use stealth, as most of the enemies will know where you are when they appear. That does not, however, reduce the fun of the combat. Fighting the aliens in zero-g or in the frozen wastes is always fast, dizzying and frantic, with lots of spent ammunition and cover to cover dashes. The fights here are much shorter but far more hectic. Each fight and each setpiece builds the scale of the conflict, reaching a crescendo in the final climactic moments.

The endgame is exaggeratedly epic, and because of that incredibly fun. A few objectives on the ship do feel like padding (nuclear core), but are only noticeable because they feel like unnecessary lulls in the high-action finale. The story ends on a cliffhanger, leading into the imminent sequel, but the narrative arc for the game is sufficiently resolved to give a real feeling of accomplishment.

Crysis is a finely wrought game. The combat, with the addition of the nanosuit, is exaggerated and exciting. The story is ridiculous, but, like a summer blockbuster, we're not in it for story: we're here to blow stuff up. And thanks to the excellent Crytek engine stuff blows up real nice. The world is rendered beautifully, the enemies are clever and aggressive, the open levels have plenty of paths to victory and side objectives, and the linear levels have tremendous setpieces and difficult, epic fights. Crysis is extremely well built from start to finish and I highly recommend it for any shooter fan.

Review Week Day 2: Assassin's Creed

My apologies for not posting this last night; the election precluded anything else (happy dance). So today we'll bring you two, starting with Assassin's Creed.

Assassin's Creed brings me back to my days playing the original Tenchu games; but here, instead of worrying about line of sight and complete invisibility, the player is more concerned with the social acceptability of their actions. It's a great move that creates a number of interesting situations around a well developed and compelling game world. In most stealth action games ninety percent of the people you encounter are enemies that will shoot on sight and the rest are civilians more accurately described as walking alarms. Here ninety percent of the people you meet are the colorful fauna of a medieval Arabian city, and the other ten percent will ignore you until you do something ridiculous. The bustle of the cities creates a great living world that changes the staple stealth game dynamics in truly interesting ways. Here when you're stalking your target you are just another face in the crowd, and when you're making your escape you have a thousand wandering people to brush and barrel your way through.

The movement and the navigation are where the game shines. Whether you sprint through the streets bowling over old ladies or take to the roofs, the movement is fluid and engaging. Despite the unapproving reactions of the city's populace when you're scaling their neighbor's house, the freedom of motion is incredibly fun independent of the game's motives: it creates a situation where the player is driven to accomplish goals not for the sake of the game but for their own sake, to climb the highest building simply because it's there and they can. In aligning some of the side goals with this natural impulse (placing a Templar in a broken tower atop the cathedral in Acre, the numerous flags scattered across the roofs, the benefits granted by the vantage points), Ubisoft encourages the player to explore, to play, and to generally mess about. The assassination will wait for you, right now there are guards to stalk and side missions to complete, buildings to climb and archers to throw off rooftops.

Which brings us to the combat. Many have maligned the combat for being too repetitive, a complaint that seems to ignore the numerous new moves learned in the remarkably Zelda-esque progression system (every story point reached garners a new life bar and a new tool/ability). To call it repetitious is a matter of opinion and playstyle: the combat can allow for a purely defensive, countering posture, but there is a rhythm to it that utilizes all of the dodges, combinations and throws to full effect, a rhythm which changes depending on the weapon used. I found the combat exceedingly fun, to the point where I spent hours riding my horse through patrols and into military camps simply to see how quickly I could dispatch the guards that surrounded me. It was immensely satisfying toward the end of the game to slice through ten guards in as many seconds, or to kill a templar with a single, perfectly timed counter-attack.

The medieval conspiracy story is interesting enough to drive the play (little motivation is needed when one enjoys the gameplay), but the unskippable cutscenes got tedious at times, and the game ends so abruptly it makes the accomplishment less satisfying. There will obviously be a sequel, and the change of setting will be interesting, but the story ends too quickly to properly close the narrative arc. There is an interesting discussion to be had about the dissonance between the story a game is trying to tell and the actual actions of the player, but here is not the place for it. In this case the story has an interesting question of guilt for the murders you must do as a player, but that imposed guilt was mocked by my own actions. Altair's guilty conscience about the slaying of one of the monstrous assassination targets is rendered hollow when he is standing atop a throne of skulls built from the hundreds of guards murdered and hunted through the cities and kingdom.

There were some bothersome crash bugs in the menu system, and at times I experienced a ridiculous framerate increase in-game (ridiculous in part because my computer is on the lower end of the system reqs). Right now my save game is unplayable and freezes on every load, so I cannot go back and replay some of the missions. Regardless, this is a highly enjoyable game that I would recommend to anyone who likes stealth action and/or open-ended game worlds. The story is capable, the setting believable and the gameplay is remarkably fun.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Review Week Day 1: Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2

It's been too long since last I posted here. And now, staring down the particularly gravid barrel of the recent and upcoming release schedule, I feel the need to clear my desk in preparation for the new games I will have to get my hands on. So despite the needs of school and work breathing down my neck, I've decided that for each day of this week I will take some time out of my schedule to write a brief review of one of the games I've finished recently. We'll begin with Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2.

GRAW2 is nothing if not a capable tactical military shooter. Emphasis on tactical, emphasis on military, de-emphasis on shooter. This is not a game for Quake 3 tournie jockies. This, like its predecessor and its predecessor's predecessor, is a game about tactics. The damage model is unforgiving; only two or three shots are needed to off you or any of your squadmates. The movement is slow and technical, but the tension provided by the ever-present snipers and machinegun nests balances well against the tedium of crossing a city at a cautious stroll. To add to the feeling of realism, your character's movements have a distinct weight not usually seen in a video game. It is disorienting at first that the button presses do not translate immediately into onscreen motion, but it strongly conveys the feeling that you have a physical presence in the game world. Your character, burdened with body armor and equipment, can only move so fast, so you have to think carefully before stepping into the street.

The campaign picks up the story close on the heels of the first GRAW, with Mexican rebels in alledged posession of a nuclear weapon threatening the United States. Through ruined border towns and haciendas you'll fight against an increasingly aggressive and well-equipped mercenary army. The game is fairly easy for the majority of the missions, but the difficulty is artificially inflated in the last mission when, within striking range of every airbase in Texas, you are forced to take a heavily fortified and entrenched enemy position on foot with little cover. The story is predictable flag waving Team America fanfare, complete with gruff-love marine generals and 'oh noes the terrorists are going to set up us the bomb' simplicity.

The AI, like the previous game, is not stupid as much as it is predictable. The gun battles are simple if you have a good place to camp and snipe, but the multiple paths in many of the levels allow the enemies to flank you if you are not careful. It's not F.E.A.R., but it does keep you moving enough to make it interesting. The AI also has a nasty tendency of waiting you out, keeping you on the defense even as you leave your hiding place after the smoke has cleared. Your squadmates' AI has improved since the last game, in which I thought they were malicious terrorist sympathizers. Here they are much simpler, a good thing for AI squadmates. They do not try to move out from the cover you put them in, they do not walk backwards around corners into a machinegun nest's line of fire, they simply sit where you tell them to sit, stay behind you and out of your line of fire and shoot when they get the chance. They also brought back the invaluable Recon/Assault switch from the first game which makes managing unruly teammates much less of a headache. Frustratingly, there is no instruction on actually using your squadmates' ZUES launchers against enemy armor and helicopters, which becomes necessary in the later missions and would have been helpful in the earlier.

All told, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is a well done game. It has its issues with the AI and the story is campy and overacted, but the final game is still worth playing. The gameplay is solid, the firefights engaging and, with the improved squad AI, the tactics are worthwhile. If you are a fan of the previous Ghost Recon games, especially GRAW the first, I can heartily recommend this game. If you are looking for a methodical and calculating shooter, you could do worse.